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Students at Calusa Park Elementary School need look no farther than the school’s garden to find a healthy snack.
“The students are able to pick a snack off the tree and eat it,” said fifth-grade teacher Jason Ward, who gave his students video cameras to capture the planting going on outside. “That is exciting for them.”
It is programs like the garden project at Calusa Park that the federal government is working to promote as it steps up efforts to combat childhood obesity. The Obama administration this month began pushing for new legislation that would make what is served in schools healthier. Legislation, which is soon to be introduced, would ban candy and sugary beverages and many schools would be required to offer nutritious fare.
That could be expensive. And while the Obama administration has proposed spending $1 billion more each year on the $18 billion school meals program, the increase might not be enough to cover the extra costs.
The bill would exempt bake sales, parties and other occasional offerings of sweets.
Collier County Director of Nutrition Services Dawn Houser said the district recently held a conference call with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And while she liked what she heard, she said she would like to see more specifics.
“I think we need to talk about how we are going to make these things happen with specifics,” she said. “We need to determine what will work and what is right from a logical standpoint.”
But Houser said she was encouraged by news that the USDA is considering increasing reimbursement rates for breakfasts, improving access for poorer students to receive free lunches at school and a program that would allow Collier to use more of its commodity dollars to purchase locally grown, seasonally fresh produce.
The National School Lunch Program serves 31 million children in more than 100,000 schools. It was started in 1946 to ensure that children get enough to eat after health problems related to malnutrition were found in an alarming number of World War II draftees. Now, health officials are also worried that children are eating too much of the wrong foods. About two-thirds of the nation’s adults and a third of its children are overweight — double the rates of 1980.
“We have a registered dietician who makes sure our meals are healthy,” Houser said. “But when students leave school, you can’t control what they eat at night.”
Parent Rachel Brawley said she worries that because schools have become places where some children might get their only meals that the caloric content of the meals is too high.
“We like to make lunch because it’s a healthier lunch,” she said.
Brawley’s daughter, Aleena, 10, said she likes eating healthy food. When asked what she liked to have for lunch, she said a sandwich, “usually ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly,” a 100-calorie pack of Cheez-Its and some fruit - “apples, bananas and grapes.”
Houser said the Collier County School District is required to provide one-quarter of the recommended daily allowance of calories at breakfast and one-third and lunch. She said the schools also must undergo a meal audit, which looks at what is being planned and whether or not it meets the dietary requirements.
“We are serving what we are supposed to be serving,” she said. “Now, we can’t control the caloric content of a high school student who goes down the line and wants a piece of pizza and two burgers.”
But, Houser said, the district has put in place a rule that requires elementary school students to buy a lunch or bring a lunch before they are allowed to purchase a la carte items from the lunch line.
“I think that is a good rule to have,” she said.
Junk food has long been banned from official school breakfast and lunch programs, but many schools offer fatty foods and sweets outside of these programs or have vending machines with sodas and candy, with the money often used to finance sports or other extracurricular programs. The legislation would require that all school offerings comply with strict new nutritional guidelines.
Five years ago, fewer than one third of the nation’s school districts put limits on students’ access to sugary sodas and candy. By 2008, two thirds of school districts had limits in place, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Houser said the district is in compliance with the USDA’s rules. She said that all vending machines are turned off at district schools until one hour after lunch, per federal guidelines. The machines are also turned off when students arrive at school.
In addition, she said, the district has its own wellness policy that makes carbonated beverages unavailable for student purchase at school.
Houser said she would like to increase the number of schools that have access to a federal fresh fruit and vegetable program, which is currently in three Collier schools, and she would like to expand the number of schools receiving grants to grow vegetable gardens at school.
“It exposes them to fruits and vegetables they might never try otherwise,” she said. “They are changing palates at an early age and determining what they want to eat. We want to develop those palates. The eating habits they develop now are the ones they will have for the rest of their lives.”